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Q and A with Art Conservator Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner

Develop Your Career in Art Conservation

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Art conservator Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner is the Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Material Culture, and Paintings Conservator at the Winterthur, University of Delaware, Program in Art Conservation.

She also founded the first Ph.D. program for Art Conservation in North America and is co-author of the Conservation of Easel Paintings: Principles and Practice (Routledge Series in Conservation and Museology).

Dr. Stoner is considered as one of the top art conservators in the US. Fine Art at About.com invited her to discuss how to build a career in art conservation.

Q: What do you do in your job as art conservator?

A: "I have worked in the field for more than forty years. I treat paintings, write articles and books, and teach."

Q:What skills are needed to be a conservator?

A: "We call it “the three-legged stool” — you need a thorough grounding in art history or archaeology or library science (depending on your specialty); you need excellent hand skills—painting, drawing, sewing, sculpting, casting, etc. (depending on your specialty); and you need excellent training in organic and inorganic chemistry; you need to understand thoroughly the properties of materials making up the works of art AND the materials you might use in a treatment."

Q:What technical training is required? What equipment needs to be mastered?

A: "See above. It is best to have essentially an undergraduate “triple” major in the three disciplines listed above and to understand what scientific instrumentation can help answer questions for your work: FTIR, XRF, Raman, x-radiography, GC-MS, etc. And then one should attend a graduate training program and have several years of internships afterwards."

Q: How does one become an art conservator?

A: "Go to a graduate program as one would go to a medical school to become a doctor. Apprenticeship is probably not as accepted as it once was in most locations, although excellent technicians and preparators may be trained through apprenticeship. After completing the degree, work with qualified mentors and eventually apply for Fellowship or Professional Associate status in the American Institute for Conservation (AIC)."

Q: How important are qualifications?

If you are hiring a conservator to treat a work for you, be sure to inquire about his or her credentials. Make sure s/he attended a qualified graduate conservation program and actually finished the degree. (Some people who attended undergraduate programs in universities that happen also to have graduate programs pass themselves off as trained when they are not. We do not have certification in the US so that can be a problem.) Also make sure that the person is either a Fellow or a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC). Call nearby major museums with conservation departments to ask if they know of well-trained private practitioners in your area. AIC also has a “find a conservator” link on its website.

Q: What to look for in a conservation training program?

A: "There are only three in the US for fine art conservation, and one additional (at the Getty/UCLA in ethnographic and archaeological). They accept only a few students each year and admission is highly competitive. (There are other programs in Historic Preservation, but that is not my area.)"

Q: What are some of the best schools/programs for art conservation?

A: "There are only four conservation graduate training programs in the US: Winterthur/UD, NYU, Buffalo, and Getty/UCLA."

"The University of Delaware also has a doctoral program in Preservation Studies which can include research on Technical Art History, techniques of Art Conservation, etc."

Q: Is conservation more an art form or a science? In other words, does a conservator need to be an artist or scientist, or both?

A: "Successful conservators may be very strong in the arts/art history and reasonably strong in the sciences, or vice versa. Conservation Scientists and Art Historians are good collaborators to fill in the gaps in one’s own profile. Unless a conservator is an administrator only, excellent studio skills are tantamount."

Q: What will the career opportunities for art conservators be like in the future?

A: "As long as we have art and treasured cultural heritage threatened by natural aging, mistakes in handling, fire, flood, disasters, do-it-yourselfers, travel, accidents, etc., conservators will be needed."

Q: Is it better to work in an institution or as a freelancer?

A: "This is a personal decision. It is probably best to have many years working with a group in an institution before striking out on your own and establishing your own business (because you would then probably need to work by yourself and lose the strengths from collaborative decision-making processes). There are excellent experienced practitioners in both venues."

"There are advantages in both venues:

  • In a museum — care of a known collection, contact with curators, possibly an analytical laboratory, encouragement to travel, present papers, collaborative work with colleagues.
  • In a private practice — more flexibility of hours, travel, choice of types of works to treat. (It is perhaps easier to say “no” to a private client than to a curator.)"

Q: How does a conservator deal with the wide range of eclectic materials used in contemporary art?

A: "Contemporary art involves a wide spectrum of materials and challenges, ethics, art history and knowledge. A conservator needs much experience, training, and specialized education to work in contemporary art. Best to work, after graduation, with a group specializing in the treatment of contemporary art before starting a private practice. Also it is important to have experience working with living artists."

 

Q: What is the biggest challenge or obstacle in art conservation?

 

A: "We still need to do a great deal more public advocacy about why trained conservators are preferable to do-it-yourselfers, frame shop restorers, out-of-work artists, etc. Our clients, curators, legislators, etc. should understand why we document things, why everything we use should be reversible, why we use the materials we do, why it is important to understand an artist’s work and preferences before treating a work, from Rembrandt to Rothko."

 

"The high-ticket, high-price, million-dollar paintings perhaps get more than their share of attention while whole collections of cultural property may be ignored."

Interview conducted August 14, 2012.

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